Sudden cardiac arrest deprives the brain of oxygen. That probably explains why I was unable to form new memories during the first several days following my collapse on the tennis court in mid-November. You can only imagine my profound relief when that problem suddenly seemed to vanish on day four. Still unresolved, however, was whether I might have suffered any enduring cognitive deficits of a more subtle sort.
To see where I stood, I went last week for my follow-up visit with the neurologist who treated me during my hospital stay. One of the tests he had given me in November was to ask whether I could remember three simple words—hat, shoe, and pen—that he had told me to hold in mind a few minutes earlier in our conversation. I could not recall any of them.
In the ensuing weeks, my incompetence at this task became a running joke in the family. One of my Christmas presents from Ellen and the boys was entitled “the great triumvirate.” They asked me to guess what three things were in the box. Of course, I had no idea. When I opened it to find a Tilley hat, a Cross pen, and a tiny tennis shoe Ellen had molded out of clay, they explained that these were the three words the neurologist had asked me about.
The morning before going for my follow-up visit with the neurologist, I asked Ellen to test me with three new words. “Tree, box, squirrel,” she said, then asked me five minutes later whether I could recite them. Before answering, I asked whether she could remember them. She could not. (This test is harder than it seems!) But I was relieved that I could.
About 15 minutes into my session with the neurologist the next afternoon, he told me he was going to ask me to remember three words. It was all Ellen and I could do to keep from cracking up when he used the same three words he had in November—hat, shoe, and pen! (Of course he would use the same words every time. How else could HE remember them?) When he asked whether I could recall them five minutes later, I momentarily drew a blank. But then the image of the hat, shoe, and pen in my Christmas gift box flashed before my eyes, and I was out of there with a clean bill of health.